Footsteps in Africa, Nomadic remix
We say: Can you hear the "tone of the desert?"
The roots of this compilation may well have its origins in bluesy Tuareg music from the Sahara desert but its arrival in your CD player has come by anything but a direct route. In this "Nomad remix" of the soundtrack of Kathi von Koerber's three–part documentary project, Footsteps in Africa, the traditional call and response of the Tuareg chorus has been combined with chilled dance grooves to provide a hip contemporary feel.
There is a real Who's Who of world music DJs at work here—Kaya Project, Cheb i Sabbah, ambient Rara Avis and dubstepper Solar Lion—who each give their take on the "tone of the desert"—a hidden hum said to emanate from a landscape devoid of trees and birds that can only be perceived in deep silence. In addition to original music by composer Jamshied Sharifi, the raw material with which the DJs work is mostly Tuareg groups that have assembled in tents for festivals. Other performers have been recruited to add color to the mix too, like Moroccan trance singer Hassan Hakmoun in tandem with the Bombay Dub Orchestra, and throat singer Benno Klandt.
Here and there, the gritty Tuareg element seems to be swamped by a little too much slick DJ wizardry but overall the vibe is pleasingly organic, a sincere celebration of desert life made palatable to western tastes by the addition of electronics and the syntax of dance music. OK, the result may be a little less than the sum of its parts—it certainly ain't Tinariwen—but it is all in a good cause as 15% of the profits from this remix album go towards clean water projects for the Tuareg community.
We say: A fine helping of shamanic offerings from these musical nomads.
Lo'Jo is a group of six musicians from Angers, France that have been together for more than two decades now yet still manage to sound fresh and on the money. Hard to categorize, they might be said to be peripheral to the world music scene yet give the impression that that they would be equally at home performing with theatre groups or circus acts—indeed, this is exactly how they first started out.
Lo'Jo's highly distinctive sound—perhaps best described as "voluptuous"—was forged years ago, hinging on the gruff Gallic vocals of leader Dennis Péan and the swirling impassioned close–harmony chorus of sisters Nadia and Yamina. Péan's various keyboards are augmented by Yamina's saxophone, along with superbly inventive violin and occasional flourishes of kora in front of a tight, yet spacious, rhythm section. The songs unfold like fables, sung mainly in French but also with fragments of Spanish, Arabic and English, with Péan's role as world–weary griot telling uncomfortable truths. With echoes of the Sahara, West Africa and the Middle East, and shades of blues, jazz, rap and even flamenco, this could come easily across as pretentious or indigestible, yet somehow Lo'Jo manages to make it all sound convincingly uncontrived and natural. The band members themselves describe their approach as that of a musical caravan, and this is probably the best way of looking at it.
Card–carrying internationalists, Lo'Jo have always been adventurous and keen to embrace musical experimentation. As a fan of the band for at least the last fifteen years, I can vouch that with CosmoPhono they have produced yet another album of distinctive, yet intriguingly indefinable, wild and beautiful music.
We say: Another golden–throated display from Mali's finest—Vive La Différence!
The "difference" referred to in the title of this, the golden–voiced Malian's latest offering, is the singer's albinism, a condition that has always informed Keita's role as a spokesperson for social and ethnic tolerance. Salif Keita has been fortunate in having sufficient talent to rise above a social stigma that, in African society, is often viewed with ridicule or worse but, even for a man of his standing, it has been a struggle and things have not always gone smoothly. In recognition of this, he has dedicated this album to the plight of albinos in Africa.
La Différence is the third in a series of acoustic–oriented releases that began with Moffou in 2002 and continued with M'Bemba four years later. This covers much the same sort of territory, musically speaking, with a lush backing of acoustic guitars, n'goni, balafon and female chorus that allows his glorious impassioned voice to shine to the fore. Although much of this was recorded at home in Bamako, studios in Paris and Los Angeles were also utilized, and strings added in Beirut. A further Middle Eastern element can also be heard in the addition of 'oud to some of the tracks. There are other less exotic influences too, including a guest appearance from guitarist Bill Frisell on a new take of "Folon" that ably reinterprets Keita's much–lauded 1995 version in a simpler, stripped–down form.
Salif Keita would probably sound great singing the telephone directory but it is good to know that many of the lyrics here confront important African social problems head on. Most of us though, linguistically inept when it comes to West African song, will have to be content with the sheer beauty of the music. Happily, that presents no problem whatsoever.
Assume Crash Position
We say: Brace yourselves, it's those Congolese noisemakers again!
Five years ago this Kinshasa collective (hardly a run–of–the–mill "band," more a force of nature) battered everyone's ears with the release of their first album, Congotronics. Assume Crash Position continues the trend in the same vein, performing polyrhythmic likembe (thumb piano) music on homemade instruments amplified as loudly as possible and accompanied by junkyard percussion. In the West we visit junkyards to find parts to fix our cars; in the DRC they go to build instruments and make music.
As before, the result is a relentless aural assault so full of fizzing electricity that it threatens to plunge Kinshasa into darkness: a mesmeric rhythmic barrage that has a groove so deep and fertile you could plant corn in it. It must be noted that there is a noticeably mellower element to this collection though, perhaps the result of adding electric guitars and bass to the mix, courtesy of a local Konono covers band brought in to assist. There are also guest appearances from fellow neighborhood noise merchants Kasai Allstars and Zaiko Langa Langa guitar–meister, Manuaku Pepe Felly. The result is a slightly gentler affair that is markedly more varied and multi–layered than before yet shows no sign of losing the raw visceral power that is the Konono trademark. Don't expect a ballads album or 'Konono Unplugged' quite yet.
Laurence Mitchell is a British travel writer and photographer with a special interest in transition zones, cultural frontiers and forgotten places that are firmly off the beaten track. He is author of the Bradt Travel Guides to Serbia, Belgrade and Kyrgyzstan and, closer to home, Slow Norfolk and Suffolk. He is a regular contributor to hidden europe magazine. His photographic website can be seen at www.laurencemitchell.com.